Educator Spotlight: Learning the Value of Perseverance

Alexandrea Dillon guided a student through an investigation of accidental inventions based on the American Genius: Perseverance activity. Her student explored how perseverance in the face of failure has resulted in groundbreaking discoveries.

Alexandrea Dillon is currently a substitute teacher at Banning Lewis Ranch Academy. She implemented her activity on perseverance and invention while working as an in-home special needs teacher. Photo by Logan Dillon

Why did you choose to build upon the American Genius: Perseverance activity for your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project?

I was inspired by National Geographic’s approach of teaching students attitudes and skills, rather than just knowledge. I thought sharing the importance of perseverance and grit in the development of science would be invaluable for my student. Through this activity, she learned about several well-known items that were invented by mistake, researched the history of the Slinky, and created a comic to share its invention story.

To fit my student’s needs, I adapted the lesson to have her create the comic on a computer, using the Paint application, rather than drawing it pencil-to-paper. I added a quote that I felt would resonate with her, as well as a song by one of her favorite artists. It was also important to me to include a research component in the lesson, since this was a learning target for my student. To help her continue her thought process and stay engaged through a longer lesson, I used challenge questions such as “Have you ever accidentally invented anything?” and “What other inventions do you think might be accidental, and why?”

Alexandrea’s student created a poster to share her learning with her parents. Photo by Alexandrea Dillon

How did your student react to the activity?

I was surprised by her enthusiasm and ingenuity. She researched uniforms for the U.S. Navy during the time period of the Slinky’s accidental invention, using this information to dress the characters in her comic. She also asked thought-provoking questions about science, invention and engineering throughout the project. It empowered her to be curious about inventions on a global scale and to consider the brilliance of inventors who made mistakes, recognized their potential, and changed the world.

What did your student create for her final project, and what impact do you think that process had on her?

Along with drawing the comic highlighting the creation of the Slinky, my student did an extension activity using her own accidental invention, which lowered and raised objects between the floors in her house. We then put a poster together and she presented this newly acquired information to her parents. She seemed to find the concept of accidental inventions interesting, and during our next lesson she came to me with a list of more than 10 other inventions that fell into the same category. It was clear that the lesson was impactful and inspired her to learn more about these unique inventions.

Alexandrea’s student developed her own “accidental invention” to move items between floors of her house. Photo by Alexandrea Dillon

You’re now substitute teaching. Do you anticipate using this lesson with other students, in your current role or in the future?

Yes, I hope to use the lesson plan I created in case lesson plans aren’t provided in an emergency subbing situation.  When I am teaching full-time, I plan to implement it into my science curriculum. I think this constructivist model of education with an emphasis on differentiation provides a great learning environment for all students, including those with disabilities.

What inspired you to go into education? What is your mission as an educator?

I began working as a special needs provider completely by accident, which is fitting for this lesson. When I was 19, I responded to a Care.com advertisement that had been placed in the wrong category by a family who had three special needs children, one of whom was profoundly disabled. After meeting with the family, I fell in love with their kids and their outlook on life. I worked with the family providing tutoring and respite care during my freshman and sophomore years in college. After they moved away, I began providing clinical therapies to kids with severe disabilities.

My mission is to combine my special needs experience with my teaching degree in science and provide inclusive STEM education for the students that need it. I deeply believe that science should be accessible to all students, regardless of disability status. I have found in my years working with special needs kids that they can passionately love having in-depth understanding of the world around them, if only given the chance by their teacher.

Interested in joining Alexandrea as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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